Moab residents Harold Stevens (left), Utahs highest-rated chess player, and Damian Nash, the 2010 Utah State Chess Champion, analyze a game in a local coffee shop. Photo by Scott Thiele

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Moab chess masters Damian Nash and Harold Stevens conquered Utah’s chess world at the Utah Championships earlier this month. Nash won all his games at the tournament to capture the title of Utah Chess Champion.

Stevens – the state’s highest-rated chess player – took second place.

“Damian has amazing all-around chess knowledge,” Stevens said. “And he has amazingly sharp tactics when he gets positions that he knows.”

During the tournament, which took place Nov. 6-7 in Salt Lake City, Utah, Nash steered each game into highly complex positions where both players faced dangerous threats.

“I love chess games that have attacking chances,” Nash said. “Kingside attacks make me [as] happy as a coyote in a rabbit farm.”

With the state title on the line, Nash’s game against Scott Treiman of Salt Lake City saw every player and fan in the tournament hall gathering around to watch.

The contest began as a clash of styles. Nash would play the white pieces, giving him the first move and chances to attack. Treiman prefered safe moves and risk-free games, and built a tortoise-like shell of pawns around his king, daring Nash to break through.

Nash needed little invitation. He first directed his knights to the center of the field, where they wielded power in every direction. Nash next sent three pawns marching toward Treiman’s king, to assault its entrenched defenders.

Treiman could have counterattacked but instead chose to circle the wagons, deploying his entire army tightly around his own king for defense.

Nash’s advancing pawns first chased away Treiman’s defending rook, and then penetrated Treiman’s other defenders. Treiman saw that his king was cornered and desperately counterattacked. His knight and rook found Nash’s king exposed, pursued it, and set a dangerous trap.

A less observant player would have been ensnared, but Nash spotted the idea and brought his bishop to the king’s defense. Moments later, Nash promoted a pawn to the rank of queen, and soon corralled Treiman’s king as the crowd applauded the win.

“I felt a sense of amusement,” said Nash, who had finished the state tournament in second place three previous times. “Like… wow, what do you know!”

Stevens, a chess master and a pre-tournament favorite, lost an early game but won the rest of his matches.

“He’s positionally tough,” Nash said. “He has an incredible memory for chess variations, and he’s very sharp tactically.”

Stevens managed to grind out a 139-move victory – likely the longest game in Utah championships history – in round three.

He honed his chess skills against top players on the west coast in Seattle, Wash., Portland, Ore., and Santa Monica, Calif. After moving to Moab in 2008, Stevens met Nash and other local players a year later and soon became the Moab Champion, a title held by Nash for 17 years. He tied for first place at the recent Santa Fe Open.

Stevens holds Utah’s highest player rating at 2,258 (master level is 2,200; Nash is a candidate master).

Nash said he willingly accepts risks when he attacks, as the open field can also be used by his opponents. This occurred in round two, when William Barefield seized openings that Nash created and trapped Nash’s king in the open. With no pawn cover and his escape route cut off, Nash moved his king toward the corner of the field. Barefield tried to clear a path into Nash’s position using his pawns, but Nash found just enough time to regroup his defenders and ward off Barefield’s threats. Nash won in 56 moves.

Nash and Stevens expected their stiffest competition to come from Kayden Troff, a gifted 12-year-old chess master from Salt Lake City. Ranked No. 1 nationally in his age group, Troff had already scored wins against international masters. He represented the United States at the recent World Junior Championships held in Greece, taking second place. But he stumbled at this year’s state tournament.

“He was exhausted from traveling and couldn’t reach peak form,” said Nash.

The young master will be in Moab on Friday for a match with Stevens. They will play several games on Friday and Saturday, at the Grand County Public Library.

Nash, 47, credited Stevens for helping him improve his game.

“I’ve had a master to train with and play against for the past year,” Nash said. “That’ll help your game.”

Nash compared playing chess to a dialogue between two people, explaining that the game becomes a carefully crafted communication.

“Chess is like having an interesting conversation… using symbolic language to communicate, and even to trade jokes,” he said. “But I really got into chess for the money and the women.”

Stevens, 50, said chess appeals to him because, “It’s an intellectual game, and it’s logically formed.

“Chess sometimes makes more sense than life,” Stevens joked. “And it’s fun to just have a game you enjoy playing.”

Both players said they learned the game beginning at age 6 from family members.

Their trophies are displayed in Moab, at Wake Bake Café on Main Street. They play at Wake Bake with other local chess players on Sunday afternoons.

In addition to Nash and Stevens, other strong chess players reside in Moab. Nash estimates that Moab likely has more high-level chess players than any small town in America, and more strong players per capita than most large cities.